Jim Grant lies low as a white City truck drives north on Sunset Cliffs Boulevard. Once it’s out of sight, he picks up a hand broom and sweeps the dust from a park bench made of ipe wood that sits on the dirt trail atop Sunset Cliffs. The bench bears a 3.5-by-5-inch plaque that reads “Soli’s Bench — ‘This...is America!’”
Grant dips a brush into a small white bucket filled with natural wood cleaner and scrubs the bench, which has turned a dull gray from constant exposure to the sun. Then he moves to the edge of the cliffs and talks on his phone as he waits for the bench to dry. He removes his cap and wipes the sweat from his head. Fifteen minutes later he returns with an applicator pad to rub a small amount of wood oil over the bench.
Grant has never met Soli, nor has he made the acquaintance of any of Soli’s friends or family. He has no idea who Soli is.
No one asked the 56-year-old to restore Soli’s bench. Nobody hired Grant for his woodworking and decking expertise. Grant is here of his own accord. He cleans and seals the benches on his own dime and on his own time. He is here because the City refuses to maintain the benches, refuses to coat them with wood sealant to preserve their natural color and prevent the wood from cracking, splintering, and decaying.
Fifteen ipe wood benches sit above Sunset Cliffs. Seven were paid for with donations made to memorialize a loved one who passed away.
The benches cost approximately $45,000 in September 2010. Of that amount, the nonprofit Friends of Sunset Cliffs paid $15,492 for six memorial benches. An additional memorial bench was donated directly. The City paid $27,765 for eight other benches, with Councilmember Kevin Faulconer’s office chipping in $13,000.
In a City document entitled “Donation Procedure for Sunset Cliffs Natural Park Benches” is a sentence that reads, “Prospective donors should be aware that the Park and Recreation Department policy is that a bench will not be replaced by the department if it is vandalized or deteriorates.”
“It’s no mystery that neglected property becomes a target for vandalism,” says Grant. “It’s a shame that the City and the local community groups are neglecting these benches made from this beautiful wood. And, it’s a shame that the families of these people who bought these benches for their loved ones have to see the benches turn gray and deteriorate. These benches, these memorials, will not last without the necessary upkeep. It’s ridiculous to think otherwise.”
Some families who purchased the benches assumed that the City would perform basic maintenance on them.
Joelle Vazquez’s brother, Johnny Machado, who fished at Sunset Cliffs, passed away in 2004 at the age of 25 while spearfishing in Mexico. His mother and godmother were among the first on the waiting list to purchase a bench. They paid approximately $2750 for the bench and for a plaque that reads “In our hearts — John S. Machado 04.” Vazquez says that she doesn’t remember the City telling her family that the benches would be left to decay.
“I think, well, I think it sucks,” says Vazquez in an October 10 phone call. “It’s sad. I’ve already seen graffiti on it. I think this nice man already removed that. A lot of people use these benches, and my family paid for it so people could watch the ocean just like Johnny did. He loved the ocean. I understand it is on public property. I just don’t agree that there shouldn’t be any maintenance. It’s just sad.”
Johnny Machado’s bench was the first one Grant restored. He’d been asked by a friend of his if anything could be done to make the bench look nicer for Machado’s family. Shortly after Grant restored Johnny’s bench, he decided to restore them all.
During that time he sent emails to councilmembers and the Park and Recreation Department.
In an August 22 email to Grant, Scott Reese, assistant director of Park and Rec, explained the reason the benches were not maintained. “We purchased the wood for the benches precisely for the reason that it does not need to be sealed. Ipe wood has its own natural decay defenses, so sealing is not necessary. Ipe’s natural density will prevent water absorption, cupping, splintering, and twisting issues common with wood materials.”
Grant disagrees. “I’ve been restoring decks and working with wood for 20 years,” he says during a phone call while on a job restoring a deck in Solana Beach that will be featured in Fine Homebuilding magazine.
“The wood will age slower with the finish,” says Grant.
“It has aged enough out here in the elements. The grain has started to open up and splinter. This is typical City reasoning: let’s not maintain anything.”
Grant adds that a fresh finish on the benches “sure makes them more appealing and easier to remove graffiti.”
As Grant gives a final wipe-down with a clean cloth, two women walk past.
“It’s great that private citizens are taking care of things on their own, especially something like this,” says Chula Vista resident Fran Petty. “It seems like cities are doing less and less these days, while we continue paying taxes for the services.”
Grant says thank you. “I hear that a lot while I am here doing this.”
The women thank Grant once again and continue on their walk.
Grant pulls a clean rag from his pocket and some polish and wipes the small plaque on the front of the bench. “Well, there you go, Soli.”
According to his chief of staff, Councilmember Kevin Faulconer “has not received calls for additional maintenance for the benches.” ■